When we think of groups in this country who had obstacles placed in their rightful path to cast their vote, African Americans and women are usually the firsts to come to mind. Citizens with physical challenges are often forgotten. However, this year for millions of people in this country they would have an opportunity to cast their vote without assistance from others. Federal laws require voting machines to be accessible for all, including those with physical challenges. For wheelchair voters, voting machines are maneuverable. They can be lowered to their range of sight. For the many visually impaired and blind people including those with low vision, machines are now equipped with some form of accessibility including screen magnification and audio instructions for navigation.
As the various degrees of sight among the visually impaired and blind differ ranging from a visual acuity of 20/200 (legally blind) to some with no light perception at all, our experiences with voting and the new machines would also vary. This is an interpretation of our collective experiences:
I was sure to remind my wife that before she was off to run her various errands, we would need to vote. I was excited, because this would be the first time that I would be able to once again cast a vote without requiring the aid of a sighted person. I already had a basic idea on how the machine functioned since two members of the county Commissioner’s Office demonstrated the device at a Monroe County Council of the Blind (MCCB) meeting this spring. I was ready to vote alone, again.
As MaryAnn entered the polling office along with her friend Christie, she had every intention to vote by herself. Mary Ann has never been able to cast a vote alone, she was born blind. Christie knew voting independently was very important to her, she made space in her busy schedule to be sure Mary Ann had this opportunity. Christie understands that certain things sighted people take for granted are overwhelmingly appreciated by the blind. Receiving a Braille menu in a restaurant, having an opportunity to travel independently are just two examples. For many casting a vote privately would yield similar excitement.
Helen, who lost her sight suddenly after an infection during an unrelated surgery, and her husband Bruce entered their polling location. Helen was looking forward to using the accessible voting machine. As Bruce signed his name the attendant asked, “Is she voting today?” You can assist her if you like.” All the while, Helen was standing there being spoken about as though not in the room. Finally interrupting to explain that she was prepared to use the audible device, the polling attendant reported that the voting process would take 45 minutes using the audible features. Politely he suggested Bruce should assist, implying the need not only to save their time but also that of the sighted voters. Before she was even aware, Helen was once again voting with the assistance of her husband.
Mary Ann too was told that she would need at least 45 minutes to complete the voting process. Understandably, not wanting to become a burden to her friend, she resigned to entering the voting curtain accompanied by Christie.
As I stood waiting for the gentleman to prepare my voting booth, I was once again reminded that the process would take 45 minutes and my wife would be allowed to assist me. I politely smiled and said I was prepared to use the machine. As I stood behind the curtain listening to the instructions guide me through several screens, I did not realize that my experience would not be the norm. Unlike my peers, some most of whom have been blind longer than I have. For me someone who only lost their sight less than three years ago, the ability to do things independently means so much. I could only imagine how frustrating it must have been to be “kindly persuaded” to choose assistance over self reliance. None of us ever asked to have to make such a choice. I was fortunate that although some would have preferred not to setup the equipment, my polling attendant seemed to enjoy the opportunity.
Two separate individuals in different voting locations both dissuaded from casting their vote. For some, this simple act may seem trivial. One person’s chore of voting is for another person one step closer to self reliance. Forty five minutes for some can seem like a major delay. While forty five minutes of regaining a little more independence may reaffirm a person’s belief in themselves and their abilities. Ultimately affecting a lifetime.
As I exited the voting booth, the gentleman who prepared the machine waited for my reaction. He was very surprised that the process took less than ten minutes. Before I could thank him for his assistance, he shared his appreciation with me for allowing him to be a part of the experience.
Unfortunately my peers throughout the county did not have a similar experience, and for now at least, the pleasure was truly all mine.